Scottish Dialects in Novels

"Och aye." "Nae bother." "Ye dinna ken."

Readers of Scottish historical novels can't avoid coming across Scottish accents - whether they like them or not.

A well-balanced accent gives readers the experience of 'hearing' the characters, their speech a sign of heritage, upbringing and culture. Sometimes, different accents are used to denote regional differences. This is more in line with the reality of the day, I believe, but quite difficult to achieve. Modern Scots still have different dialects, east from west and north from south. What's 'ye' for some, is 'yoo' for others, and even the odd 'ya' appears in places.

So how does a writer get a right balance? It's a tricky one.

As a (non-Scottish) resident in Scotland I have an issue with the over-use of dialects in fiction. Hints of a lilt are fine, but the continuous use of dialects - especially in characters from different corners of the country using the same speech - keep throwing me out of a story. However riveting the plot, I keep stopping to take a deep breath. Shame!

Language has changed over the centuries. Medieval languages used here no longer exist. Gaelic has become the language of a minority; Doric even more so. Scots has changed. Cities have their own, distinctive dialects. Shifts in population from the countryside to cities have merged dialects. You visit various corners of Scotland and get different lilts. It's fascinating. And quite complicated.

How does a writer of historical fiction get the right balance? If your readers like it, you must be on the right track. Correct? Maybe. Guess it depends where your readers live.

Perhaps it's just me. Maybe I've become a snob, living here, used to the different regional accents. I prefer a fine line.

So how much Scottish dialect should a novel contain? All characters? Some characters? Or none at all?

What do you think? :-)


  1. In my novel, A Piece of My Heart, I introduced a secondary character with a distinctive north Dublin accent. Fortunately for my readers, she's only in the story a few times, but her accent points to the part of Dublin City she was born and raised in, and her class. But it wouldn't necessarily have been so if the story were set 500 years ago rather than today.

    Like you, I'm a (non-Irish) resident of Ireland and have the same experience with Irish accents. Ireland is about half the size of Scotland, but the wide variety of accents and dialects is incredible. Even within a city such as Dublin, there are maybe a dozen accents alone.

    Historically speaking, while all of Ireland was controlled by Britain and the native tongue made illegal to speak, regional dialects went from extremely difficult to understand to fine English accents depending on if one lived in the heart of the countryside or in the heart of the city.

    In Ireland alone, there are five official dialects of Irish that are taught in schools -- Munster Irish taught in the south, Leinster Irish taught in the east, Connemara Irish taught in the west, Donegal Irish taught in the northwest and Ulster Irish which is the dominant dialect in Northern Ireland.

    Like dialect, even spellings are different. And oddly enough, after so many centuries, Scots Gaelic is still very close to today's Irish, as they were once the same language.

    Living on this side of the great pond I've developed a greater sense of historical accuracy in the historical novels I read. And not just for historical accuracy, but regional as well, which includes accents, slang and local euphimisms.

    I highly recommend anyone writing a regionally set story make the trip to that country. If I can be bold enough to recommend an article I wrote over the summer about this very topic --

    Great article, Cathie!

  2. It's a challenge. I write historical romance for Harlequin and my first Scottish set book, I used a few ayes and naes, but never a "kinna." (At least, I don't think I did!) My (English) editor asked me to remove the dialect, which I thought was dialect-light to begin with. We came to an agreeable compromise. On the manuscript in progress, I used no dialect, knowing my editor's preference. Now, my beta reader has told me my Scots characters don't sound Scottish enough. (Or they don't yet, I must hope.) Obviously still working on this.

  3. Thank you, Kemberlee and Blythe.

    It seems some editors aren't keen on too much dialect and I can understand where they're coming from. It's always a fine line - some readers love it, others don't.

    I agree with you, Kemberlee, about visiting the area of your setting but sadly it's not that easy. Ahh, if only we had the means and time to travel to all our settings. Hmmm...

    Blythe, good luck with finding your Scottish 'voice'. Hope you'll find the right balance between keeping your editor and your readers happy. Keep us posted. :-)

  4. Great post, Cathie. My Victorian Highland novel will be edited for publishing next year, so I have this 'dialect' argument to come. I have gone for specific words to add an accent to,like 'tae', 'dinna' and 'muther' Avoiding overload the text but be consistent.

  5. I think it speaks to reader expectations, the market for most romances put out by NY publishers is the American market who speak English. The reader has a expecation of a "romance Scot" not a real Scot. As you say Scotland has many regional dialect in both Scots and in Gaelic an author is hard pressed to get it absolutely historicall correct for the period ( most are written in the pre-modern period) and location so we get a generic "romance" Scot. Is that wrong, does it offend the Scots of today, probably no more than the "generic" American found in Scottish or UK books. The generic "American" that is portrayed in British Television is no less offensive to American viewers than Scots in romances.

    The whole dialect issue in romances be they English period dialects or Scottish dialects speak to reader expectations and many editors asking for less and expect authors to actually create a world of Scotland for the period or location without relying on the use of language only. I think use of dialect in many beginning writers is an easy way to create "Scotland" without having to get other elements of the story to connect with Scotland.

  6. Anita, I think it's fine like you say - get the balance right and don't overdo it. If you can feed in the odd accent in one character or another it adds to their authenticity, provided it's correct with the corner they come from. It would be interesting to hear what our editor thinks of the terms you use.

    Jody, yes the 'romance Scot' seems to be an issue with some writers who get carried away with the accents. Don't think it offends - that might be a bit extreme - but it can be a little annoying if it's overdone. The right balance is key, I think, but we can't escape stereotypes. They sell.

    You're spot on with your comment about dialect being used to create an image of Scotland.

    Thanks so much for posting. :-)

  7. Hi Cathie!
    What a timely post. My WIP is set in 1837 Glasgow. For me personally, I don't want a novel set in Scotland to be completely free of reminders of dialect. I also know that regional differences occurred then as now but I don't have the knowledge to do that. Luckily my characters are at least regionally the same. I've tried to get away with as little as possible--I hope that when and if I have an editor he/she will make that final decision. Thanks for a very interesting post. I'm glad you joined the HisFicCrit online group and look forward to getting to know you better!

    Thanks for adding the link to your blog!

  8. I recently read a historical,the book and her dialect were great. I think it's the consistency and you must do your research. "Tis nay wise to ride alone, nay matter how weel armed ye are." LOL
    Great post,

  9. As an editor, I think dialect interferes with a reader's natural flow. But it's obviously important for establishing both character and setting, especially perhaps in a historical - where the odd dialect character is still well-tolerated.

    My advice would be, have a few scene-setting 'Ochs' and 'Naes' in the early part of the ms, then subtly phase them out, except where they would be expected and won't spoil the mood. Old man sitting at side of country road smoking a clay pipe - yes. Hero in a frenzy of passion about to bed his woman for the first time - no.

    FWIW. ;-)

  10. Debra, I'm going to have a peek at your novel. :-) Still slowly working my way through the submissions. lol Yes, it's handy when you can stick to the same dialect. And I agree with you, a hint of a dialect sets the setting nicely.

    Neecy, did you enjoy the novel? That's what counts. Not sure I could read a whole novel where the speech is like your quote but the odd hint can't do any harm.

    Jane, interesting to gain an editor's view on dialects. Your comment is close to what Blythe's editor told her. And I must admit, a 'Hero in a frenzy of passion' crying out 'och aye' would have me in stitches. But... there are works like that out there.

    Thanks so much for popping by.


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